My hitherto silent taxi-driver suddenly became animated, pointing at a poster advertising a film called The good fortune of being French. "What rubbish," he said. "What total, dishonest rubbish. It's not good fortune at all. It's a chauvinist nation, pig-headed and chauvinist."
Then he got to the point: "Those nuclear tests. What arrogance! What must other people think of us? No time for anyone else at all, the French haven't. What was Chirac thinking of?"
That episode took place at the end of last week and represents one aspect of French thinking about the resumption of nuclear tests. While the taxi driver's vehemence is hardly characteristic of the French mood overall, it is indicative in one respect. Even before Sunday's anti-nuclear aircraft hijacking, the campaign against French testing had started to hit where it hurts: the French sense of national dignity.
In recent days French television news has shown sequences from Australia giving the Australian point of view. An off-licence proprietor was shown in front of boxes of French wine. "How many have you sold in the past week?' the interviewer asked. "Almost bloody nothing," said the owner. Customers were stopped. "Would they buy French wine?" "You must be joking," came the reply from a blonde in denim shorts. "Why not?" asked the interviewer. "Your nuclear tests, of course," the blonde shot back. The preface to the sequence had admitted sales of French wine in Australia had plunged since the announcement of the tests.
Until the end of last week, French officials and the French media were trying to act as though nothing was happening. The effect of boycotts was described by the Agriculture Minister, Philippe Vasseur, as "hard to quantify", "more rumoured than real".
Now there are reports of large falls in sales, at least in Australia and Northern Europe. Reference is even made to the "mass burning of baguettes" in Australia, an act of sacrilege almost beyond the comprehension of the average Frenchman or woman.
While Britons might react to a national insult of this order with a stiff upper lip, a great many in France seem to take it to heart. Some react like my taxi-driver; many others, though, see the fault not in France, but in "foreigners". Nor has the indulgent attitude of the British Government to Jacques Chirac's test programme penetrated French consciousness. They assume Britons are as hostile to the tests as everyone else seems to be.
There is an aggrieved sense of the "cultured" French standing up for "virtue" against foreign barbarism. Some of this tone sounded clearly in a radio interview given by the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette, yesterday. ``I am shocked," he said,'' by the attitude of some of our EU partners. There is a mountain of hypocrisy here. In order to live together, you have to impose certain rules." French rules, presumably.
The French Foreign Ministry yesterday denounced Japanese Finance Minister Masayoshi Takemura's participation on Sunday in a demonstration in Papeete, Tahiti. Two Greenpeace inflatables entered Mururoa atoll's waters after leaving their mother vessel. The French Armed Forces station in Papeete said the vessels were intercepted 220 yards inside the lagoon an hour later.